Sunday, September 28, 2008

Garden Diary: Change

Two images, one in June, one late September. A sunny morning, a foggy morning. A three-foot shift in point of view.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Chanticleer Tour

Chanticleer, a garden outside Philadelphia, is one of the notable public gardens in the U.S. It's very much a garden in progress (but aren't all gardens in progress?). On my first visit a week ago, I was bowled over.

This is an informal landscape garden with several major "events" as you walk its circuit - a large irregular circle with byways and diversions. The formal elements are limited to the symmetrical courtyard gardens around the houses - even these are bursting their constraints - and the Tennis Court Garden, which is lent some formality by a center staircase leading to it, a central axis of grass and symmetrically laid out planting beds, which are so rich with exuberant life and variety, even at the end of summer, they don't feel formal at all.

This map from the Chanticleer website shows the garden as a large circle with several detours. You'll need to click on the map to see the details.

Chanticleer bills itself as a 'pleasure garden' and it is that. Plenty of seating, in private nooks and in the open landscape, invites visitors to rest and while away the hours in this idyllic environment. On my visit on a Thursday afternoon near the end of September, many visitors were doing just that, quietly sitting in some of the choicest spots. Chanticleer also has a playful side - ceramic bamboo canes adorned by bright red Chanticleer 'rooster combs' (the rooster is Chanticleer's identifying symbol), visual jokes such as a large sofa and 'easy chairs' made of heavy stone slabs, a bright red row of custom-made lounging chairs, water fountains carved out of wood and stone, all contrived to bring a twinkle to the eye. Even on this quite day, there were many children.

Click on the photo below for a slide show of the garden.

Friday, September 19, 2008

The High Line: new links

Friends of the High Line have put up two videos of interest to anyone following the progress of this new elevated park in Manhattan. (See previous post.)

The first is a history of the High Line, narrated by Ethan Hawke.

This one is a silent presentation on design of the High Line by Diller Scofidio + Renfro, the project architect, and Field Operations, the landscape architect. Typically, the architect and landscape architect downplay the horticultural aspect of the project: there is no mention of Piet Oudolf, who is designing the plantings.


Yesterday was clear, cool and sunny, an almost perfect almost autumn day, and I had taken time off from work.

I decided to visit Chanticleer, a well known garden near Philadelphia. (A recent article on Chanticleer in Gardens Illustrated magazine had awakened my interest.) It's only about 40 miles from my house on Federal Twist, and I'd been meaning to visit for several years. But having only weekends to attend to my own garden, I had never gotten there.

Chanticleer far surpassed my expectations, and it brought me to the realization that I have a serious ailment common to many gardeners. Once I entered the garden, I was overcome by a nervous frenzy, a feeling of being out of control, without enough time to see, enjoy and remember the sheer variety of plants, the amazing use of color, the intricate plantings around the houses (Chanticleer is on the grounds of a former private estate), the use of exotic, tender plants in astonishing combinations - all this in the enclosed courtyards around the residences - then the open landscape offering more surprises and pleasures. By the end of the visit, I felt as if I'd eaten three large cakes with butter cream frosting, almost sickened with the sensory bombardment. I am a plantaholic.

I'm glad to be back home, in my own much smaller, much simpler garden. In recovery.

Is there a cure for this condition?

(I'll put up some pictures after I've had time to sort through them.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

A collaboration, or a battle, with nature?

The pond at 6:04 a.m.

I've been thinking of my garden as kind of collaboration with nature. My pond, dug this spring, has no liner. It's just a hole in heavy clay. The soil that came from the hole now fills in behind a new dry laid stone wall surrounding the base of the house.

I have thought of this as sustainable garden practice, a collaboration with nature. But is it really? Can one really collaborate with nature? The pond isn't natural; it's man-made, even without a liner. I'm thinking this idea of collaboration is a false concept. What I'm doing is really a kind of battle with nature. Not the kind of chemical-laden battle a farmer does growing a corn monoculture in the American Midwest, but a battle nonetheless. A gentle battle. Nature, or nature's saturated clay in winter, kills monarda; I plant something else. Rudbeckia maxima thrives; I plant more. I can only do what nature allows. Nature bosses me around.

Ian Hamilton Finlay's garden Little Sparta contains many references to war and conflict: images of machine guns, battleships, hand grenades. Up to now, I haven't been able to understand what all the militaristic imagery is about. I think I'm beginning to get the point.

One can try to do no harm, but collaboration is out of the question. Nature is in control, unless we destroy it; and we may succeed.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

The High Line: planting begins

Almost two years after my first post on the High Line, a new park in Manhattan being built on an abandoned elevated railroad viaduct, planting has begun on the first segment. You can read about it on the High Line Blog and see how Piet Oudolf's planting designs are actually being transferred from plans to dirt.

(photo from the High Line Blog)

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Quiet Incidents

So much happened in the garden in August, these photos bring a bit of calm. The vertical seedheads of Physostegia virginica like miniature towers, with silvery Pycnanthemum muticum, a couple of big leaves of Silphium terebinthinaceum on the right and, at back, Panicum virgatum 'Dallas Blues'...

Panicum 'Cloud Nine' as background to Rudbeckia maxima seedheads ...

Panicum 'Shenandoah' in flower, its leaves ruby streaked. The Physostegia and Joe Pye are out of focus, but the three plants make an interesting study in vertical structure. Click on the photo to see fireworks ...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

The Battery Bosque: prairie as metaphor

On a visit to the Battery in early August, I discovered a new garden designed by Piet Oudolf in my home town. My August 11 post described that pleasant, even exciting visit. Since then I've been thinking about the historical importance of the New York Battery, the appropriateness of this garden to the site and its history, and have wanted to explore these thoughts in more depth. Anne Wareham, on the ThinkinGardens website, has published helpful points to consider when visiting gardens. The following is a more thoughtful report on my visit to the Bosque garden using some of Anne's suggestions.

The Bosque garden at the Battery on the southern tip of Manhattan is a totally unexpected gift. Dirt paths flowing in a relaxed meander under the light cover of 140 London Plane trees define islands of perennial plantings. A grungy, neglected park has been remade through Piet Oudolf's design into a practical, durable, beautiful, and historically and culturally appropriate strolling garden that powerfully evokes the American prairies. (Suspend for a moment the dissonance created by the idea of a prairie on New York Harbor.)

Relatively small, at only 60,000 square feet, the Bosque garden is easy to navigate. The paths offer plenty of opportunity for rambling, moving toward and away from the harbor, or to get a better view out - to the water, back to the towers of downtown Manhattan, a glimpse of the expensive apartment towers continuing to rise in Battery Park City.

The Challenge

This is the embarkation point for tour boats to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, two of the most visited historic sites in the United States, if not the world. Any garden in this place must serve multiple purposes and balance many competing needs, offering an aesthetic and sensual experience for garden visitors, meaningful rationale for those familiar with the significant history of this site, and a pleasant environment for passersby, without creating a theme park-like atmosphere or unnecessarily intruding on the experience of those not interested in the garden. And it must be able to be maintained at reasonable cost and be made of durable materials, both hardscape and living.

Most visitors don't come to see the garden, so one might ask why make a garden here? Context provides the answer. New York City has embarked on a large-scale effort to recapture its waterfront. The Bosque garden is one spectacular link - indeed the southern starting point - of a linear park that will eventually extend up Manhattan's West Side from the Battery several miles to the north. It is a part of the re-greening of New York City that is evident to residents even in changing approaches to roadway design, proliferation of bicycle lanes, and numerous "traffic calming" measures throughout the City.

By any measure the Battery is a hostile place for a garden. The heavy pedestrian traffic and the exposed nature of the site - on the waterfront, with virtually no screening from wind, sun, and salt spray - wedged between heavily trafficked streets on the north and the harbor on the south, and with an extraordinary labyrinth of vehicular tunnels and infrastructure underground, would seem to militate against establishing a perennial garden here. What better designer than Piet Oudolf, who works in a vocabulary of plant materials characterized by sturdy geometric form, durable structure, and the ability to provide visual appeal even through winter weather? Because of the small size of the garden, the plants must do double and triple duty, maintaining their appeal for much longer than typical in most gardens. Though I did see some plants in less than pristine condition, such as Carex muskingumensis cut back to the ground, on the whole most plantings were thriving. Oudolf's perennial selections appear too be superbly adapted for this site.

The Meaning of the Place

Beyond the hostile environment, the multiple layers of historic and cultural associations present yet other challenges. The Battery sets off a kaleidoscopic burst of images and associations, making this a difficult place to design a garden appropriate to site, use and history.

Probably one of the most history-laden sites in North America, going back to the first settlement of New Amsterdam over 300 years ago - even before that, to the primeval forest that was home to the native Americans, the Lenni Lenape - the Battery brings to mind a wealth of historic associations. The original Dutch settlement, a private enterprise where commerce ruled the day, and where the first seeds of an open and free society were sown, was replaced early on by the English who imprinted their culture and language on the city. The superb harbor promoted development of a busy seafaring world that covered the waterfront all round this part of Manhattan. In the 18th century the Battery continued to be important in the defense of New York City and it played a significant role in the the American Revolution and later the War of 1812. George Washington was inaugurated as the nation's first President at Federal Hall just a few blocks to the north. Later cultural influences derived with the blossoming of Walt Whitman's prophetic and visionary voice in such emblematic poems as Crossing Brooklyn Ferry, and the epic construction of the Brooklyn Bridge, just to the north of the Battery on the East River. The Great Bridge is both a practical and an immensely symbolic structure apostrophised by the early modernist American poet Hart Crane as an arc of space and time that leaps from Europe and the urban east to the prairies at the center of the continent, imagined in cinematic terms as a metaphorical bridge carrying the millions of immigrants who passed through this harbor to new futures and distant geographies (“O Sleepless as the river under thee, vaulting the sea, the prairies' dreaming sod”), and finally the almost cliched icon of the Statue of Liberty.

Does it Work?

The Bosque garden must respond in a meaningful and satisfying way to all these challenges. This garden works, and it works on many different levels, from the most practical to the highly symbolic. (I was intrigued by the use of the name "Bosque". The word is used for small wooded areas that thrive in environmentally hostile areas along rivers in the southwestern U.S. and is derived from the Spanish, so it is an appropriate name in a metaphorical sense.)

The Bosque garden easily accommodates existing uses and features of the site. It works as a route of passage for the hundreds of thousands of tourists who pass it to reach the waterfront to view the Statue of Liberty or to reach the tour boats. Walkways direct the throngs from the heavily trafficked northern edge around Castle Clinton to the long queues for the boats, shown in the plan above from the Battery Conservancy web site. The garden edges this passageway, offering paths into the Bosque proper.

The garden also coexists comfortably with the large, rectangular East Coast Memorial, seen prominently in the plan above and the photo on the right, and a 40-foot-wide walkthrough fountain popular with children. By maintaining a low profile the garden easily plays the role of decorative background to the new fountain and the large, stiffly erect Memorial of stone monoliths with a giant stylized eagle. By being so low key, the garden almost mocks the self-conscious aggrandizement of the Memorial.

Standards of maintenance in New York City parks are generally quite low. In this case, I'm sure the Battery Conservancy is responsible for much more attentive maintenance than usual. The plantings too, as is typical with Oudolf designs, tend not to require a great deal of care, and are durable on their own. Over several years now, the Garden of Remembrance, which is really nothing more than the separately named waterside edge of the Bosque garden, and the Bosque itself have survived and even thrived in spite of apparently difficult environmental conditions, so the plantings can be said to work, and work well, on a practical level. I have only seen them in August, normally one of the hottest and most climatically stressful months in the City, and they were in amazingly good condition.

Anyone familiar with Oudolf's work will recognize many of the plants in the Bosque garden, but the design is not stale or formulaic. This is a risk of Oudolf's technique, based as it is on rather rigid planting principles with masses of astilbes, grasses, scutellaria, and other perennials in his pallet. We have seen many of the plant combinations before, but they are put to appropriate purpose here. Nearer the more crowded areas, the plantings are relatively low, maintaining an open view, and actually keeping the garden below the level of consciousness of most tourists, who after all are here to see the sights, not to visit a garden. For most of these visitors, the garden works on an almost unconscious level, serving only as a pleasant environment through which to walk.

For those visitors who want a garden, the plantings are low, like a low surf (many are groundcover), near the heavily trafficked end of Battery Park. As you stroll along the winding paths of sandy soil - surprisingly not stone or concrete, which you would expect - moving toward the east where the Staten Island Ferry Terminal blocks further passage - the plantings gradually build, like large waves of water, becoming looser, bulkier, taller, and taking on complex geometric shapes, very different in character from the rest of the garden.

A Conceptual Garden of Allusion

While it works as simply a beautiful, diverse, and intriguing planting, the Bosque garden is also a conceptual garden that works through allusion. How much of this is due to intellectual intent or simply to location and context I can't say. It may be that the garden, in its simplicity, takes on resonances of meaning just because it exists in this historic place.

Regardless, in the mind of this viewer it successfully negotiates the complex world of cultural symbols associated with the Battery and the concept of "America" epitomized in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island. The idea of "prairie" recalls a range of images, emotions, and stories emblematic of American history, from the "fruited plains" of the anthem "America" to the artistic vision of Willa Cather's My Antonia set in the prairies of North Dakota, and could be seen to refer to innumerable other stories set in the American prairies. The symbolic journey begun at the Battery ends in a multitude of different places and times, but none more appropriate than the center of the North American continent, in words of William Cullen Bryant, in the place "for which the speech of England has no name". The prairie has become such a central concept in American culture and literature it is hard to visit this garden without finding one's thoughts turning to the many themes associated with the American prairie.

There is no doubt this is a highly artificial garden built in one of the most heavily used pedestrian areas in New York City, above rail and automobile tunnels, surrounded by the towers of downtown Manhattan. But it is a successful and beautiful garden that provides visual delight and respite. It meets the challenges of the site's use and exposure, and through the metaphor of the prairie, helps clarify the meaning of the historical and cultural clutter of the Battery's past.

The garden can be appreciated on the most basic level, as a collection of striking plantings and pleasant views. For those who bring an understanding of the history of New York City and the Battery, of the defining importance of the prairies (now mostly vanished) in American culture, and of the symbols that have become deeply embedded in American identity and the concept of Manifest Destiny, it offers a more meaningful, contemplative, and culturally self-critical experience.

(Photo of lower Manhattan and plan of the Battery are from The Battery Conservancy website. Other photos from August 11 post and Phillip Saperia.)

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Hot Air Balloon

Late Monday, we passed this hot air balloon making a landing in Rosemont. The balloons usually go up late in the day when the air is calm, and land at twilight. This is a beautiful sight, one I never tire of seeing. Is this gardening? Of course!


Related Posts with Thumbnails